I am still exploring this area of the South East that we now call home and, up to a few weeks ago, I had no idea that there was a connection between William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, a garden containing monumental landscape boulders more reminiscent of the Peak District, a minor poet and associate of the Bloomsbury set, and Ireland’s greatest poet of the 20th century. What a heady mixture. Since then I have also learned about Medieval iron works, the fact that the rocks are a feature of the landscape in many areas around Tunbridge Wells and much more. This is the story of the house and garden now known as ‘ Penns in the Rocks’.
Twice a year this historic house opens up its spectacular gardens to the public under the National Gardens Scheme. We went along not knowing what to expect, but we were not disappointed . The house is located over a mile off the main road through Rocks Wood, an ancient woodland hiding a secret; iron founding workings dating back to the Romans and possibly earlier. In fact, the whole of the Sussex and Kent Weald, has been involved in iron production for over 2000 years, from Sedlescombe and Westfield near Hastings, up to a large area to the West of Tunbridge Wells.
In the mid 17th century there was a farmhouse, Rocks Farm, on the site of the present house owned by the Springett Family, who for generations had been involved in the Sussex Iron Industry. In 1672 William Penn enters the story by marrying Gulielma Springett and in return receiving Rocks Farm as a dowry, although they never actually lived there.
Most people will know that William Penn founded Pennsylvania, but how he ended up with a large piece of land across the ocean is not so well known. Penn who had been born in 1644 had become a committed Quaker, not long after the movement was formed by George Fox in the middle of the 17th century.
Penn was the son of a Royalist Admiral, but he was ostracised by his family and society when he became a Quaker, often spending periods in prison as a result of his beliefs. However, when his father died, William inherited an unpaid debt that the crown owed to his father and in 1681 Penn requested that the King, Charles II, grant him the last large unclaimed territory on the North American seaboard in lieu of the debt.
Penn had the bold idea of creating a haven for the Quakers and other religious minorities who were becoming increasingly persecuted in their home country. In the new province of Pennsylvania, he wished to create a society where there would be complete religious freedom for all, and where all faiths and religious groups could worship without fear of persecution, known by the Quakers as ‘The Holy Experiment’.
“To attract settlers to Pennsylvania, Penn traveled throughout the continent, promoting his colony to both Quakers and other religious groups suffering persecution for their beliefs. Many accepted Penn’s invitation to come to the New World, and Pennsylvania quickly became a multinational and multi-religious colony unlike any other in North America. Rich with natural resources and economic opportunities, it attracted Quakers, as well as English Anglicans, French Huguenots, Scottish and Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Irish Catholics, and Jews. For most of the eighteenth century, Pennsylvania was one of the few places under British control where Catholics could legally worship.” Quotation from the website, Explore PA History at Religious Communities in Pennsylvania
These groups were quickly followed by more marginal Protestant groups from Europe escaping persecution including Lutherans, Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, Harmonists and many more too numerous to mention, but all with one thing in common to be part of a noble experiment to create a new society and, with it, a better world.
As with all great movements this was doomed to failure, but as stated in Explore PA History “today, Pennsylvanians of hundreds of different faiths live and work together peacefully, and the communitarian impulse survives in myriad forms: religious and secular, urban and rural, pacifist and apocalyptic.” This must give us some sort of hope, when we see how America is once more at war with itself.
Before we leave William Penn, I have discovered a fascinating fact, that will infuriate those people who think that the European Union is a dastardly plot hatched by the French and Germans. It was in fact an English Quaker, the same William Penn, who in 1693 drew up a detailed proposal for a League of European Confederation, to end, once and for all, the fratricidal wars tearing Europe apart. This radical proposal was, of course, rejected, but is as valid today as it ever was. William Penn: The Utopian Who Invented the European Parliament
Meanwhile, back in England, Rocks Farm became the residence of the descendants of Penn, and in 1732 the house was updated with the addition of the the classic Georgian facade facing the Rocks, and changed its name to ‘Penn’s House in the Rocks’ shortened to ‘Penns in the Rocks’.
Subsequent owners made further alterations to the property, but it was not until the 1920s that the house and garden really came into its own, when the bohemian socialite and Bloomsbury poet Dorothy Wellesley bought the house, in 1928, after visiting it with Vita Sackville-West, her friend and one time lover.
Dorothy had been married to Lord Gerald Wellesley in 1914, and had two children, before separating in 1922, allegedly after she abandoned her husband and children to be with Vita. For the rest of her life Dorothy’s preference was most decidedly other women and she became part of the queer subculture that thrived amongst the intelligentsia in Sussex and Kent in the 1920s and ’30s including, amongst others, the aforementioned Vita, the novelist Virginia Woolf and the BBC Radio Producer, Hilda Matheson.
In 1932, Dorothy became lover and companion to Hilda Matheson, who moved into Rocks Farm a short distance away from Penns and they were together until Hilda’s tragic death in 1940, whilst having a routine thyroid operation. Hilda was an extraordinary woman who had worked for MI5 and then became a senior executive in the fledgling BBC, and whilst there are libraries full of books about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, there is very little written about Hilda and she deserves an article all to herself.
Dorothy, as a poet, was part of the Bloomsbury Group, albeit on the fringes, and was a close aquaintance of both Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, who were well established by this time in Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, which had become an artwork in its own right.
At that time Penns had a very traditional interior and in 1929 Dorothy decided to get her friends to brighten up her Dining Room and bring it into the modern age; she commissioned them to design and decorate the room, including walls, table and chairs and even the fireplace. It must have looked spectacular and Duncan Grant thought it was one of best pieces of work they ever did, but alas all that remains of its splendour are two black and white photographs that appeared in The Studio Magazine in 1930.
In an act of cultural vandalism, the room was completely redecorated by the new owners of Penns, following Dorothy Wellesley’s death, and the fittings and furniture were sold off. The fireplace has found its way into Southampton Art Gallery and some of the chairs have been acquired by the collector David Herbert, an expert on the Bloomsbury Group and the Omega Workshops. Further information about Dorothy Wellesley’s dining room can be found on David Herbert’s website at It started with a jug
During that period, Duncan Grant also painted a wonderful picture of Penn’s Rocks, to my mind, very much influenced by a certain Vincent Van Gogh.
William Butler Yeats, the famed Irish poet, discovered Dorothy Wellesley’s poetry, when he was editing and researching The Oxford Book of English Verse and was immediately smitten, declaring that her poetry was sublime. In the view of many critics, Yeats’ judgement seems to have deserted him in the case of Dorothy, who is generally regarded as a good but minor poet.
When Yeats began visiting Dorothy on a regular basis at Penns in the 1930s, it is hard to overstate his fame, being widely regarded as the greatest Irish poet of the 20th century. He had recently received the Nobel Prize for literature and was also a former Senator in the new Irish State that had emerged in 1921.
It was an unlikely attraction, the older sexually obsessed Yeats with a serious heart condition and the younger Dorothy, who was determinedly lesbian. Somehow, it appears that they forged an intimate relationship, which lasted for the four years up to Yeats’ death in 1939. Whether it was sexual or not we will never know, but it appears to have been a grand passion. It is not known what the other person in Dorothy’s life, Hilda Matheson, thought of this strange relationship.
When Dorothy died in 1956, the property was sold to the parents of the present owners, who continued to develop the garden, the results of which can be appreciated by visitors to this day.
When first entering the garden at the rear of the house, you walk across a well manicured lawn and it is then that you suddenly notice, with a start, the rocks, in all sorts of shapes and sizes, looking as though they had been randomly dropped into the landscape from a great height. The ferns and mature trees are growing out of the fissures in the rocks, causing their roots to bend and twist, and you would not be at all surprised to see a dinosaur suddenly popping its head up over the stones.
These boulders could well have been around when the dinosaurs walked the earth, as Geologists have dated them to be approximately 150 million years old. When set down in the middle of a Georgian garden, it is a landscape gardener’s delight, something Capability Brown could only have dreamed about.
In fact, in this area just south west of Tunbridge Wells, many outcrops of ancient sandstone rocks can be found including, amongst others, Eridge Rocks Nature Reserve , High Rocks and Harrison’s Rocks, the latter being owned by the British Mountaineering Council for the benefit of climbers. These areas are one of the many surprises that one finds in this part of the High Weald on the Sussex and Kent borders.
Penn’s Rocks, which constitutes this particular outcrop plus 3 other outcrops covering approximately 10 hectares in the vicinity, have been designated as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) in that the ‘sandrock’ is a nationally rare habitat that supports a rich community of ferns and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) including many ‘Atlantic’ species, which are uncommon in South-East England.
Sometimes a chance visit to a previously unknown place can open up a world of possibilities for a writer and ‘Penns in the Rocks’ is just such a case. A unique garden formed from an ancient landscape, a history involving one of the major figures in the early history of the United States and filled with a cast of poets, writers and artists. Serendipity is a wonderful thing and can often be found just around the corner.